Alyssa Taylor goes to the opera for the very first time

James Westman as Rigoletto
photo by Madison Kerr

review by Alyssa Taylor

The opening night of Edmonton Opera’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto on October 19 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium quite captivated the audience with a 200-year old story set originally in the 16th century, but still so relevant today. Director Robert Herriot recreates the world into a “harsh, steampunk place where no one is safe”. The neon colours and lighting create a stage that is meant to expose this dystopian society before our very eyes. 

This being my first time going to the opera, I was a bit unsure of what I should expect. I knew theatre and musicals, but this was an exciting new experience for me. Images of upper-class people in beautiful clothes floated through my head and made me worry if this was something for everyone. But my worries were quickly abolished as I arrived to the Jubilee, where there were people from every background wandering around and making conversation. 

Where a musical is all about being entertaining and fun for the audience, an opera is made to have the audience think and feel about the content that they are seeing. Both are amazing art forms – they just have different purposes when it comes to the audience.

The struggle between power and revenge is rife throughout the opera, characters all struggling with a desire to be powerful in a society that eats their moral integrity. James Westman’s portrayal of Rigoletto had me both laughing and crying as he progressed on his thrilling journey of revenge. 

 “This is not a romance” says Herriot – it is a story of a father with a love so immense for his daughter that it creates a cursed fate for the both of them and leaves the perpetrator free and unburdened. 

Speaking of villains, Matthew White, who flourishes in the role of The Duke, plays the role of a womanizing cad convincingly. Beauty and money hides a lecherous character that you love to hate: fate seemingly overlooks him in favour of torturing Rigoletto for his vengeful thoughts.

The scenery is minimal but so limitless in its possibilities and design. Designer Camellia Koo truly delivers a whole world with something so simple and efficient. It viscerally shows the flimsy veil between the private and public worlds, a theme so prevalent as Rigoletto struggles to keep his daughter and private life hidden from the horrors of the court he tries to please. 

Bonnie Beecher’s lighting, on the other hand, I felt worked best with Sharleen Joynt’s character Gilda. I couldn’t help but notice how the lighting truly enlightened Gilda’s angelic nature as she embraces her father, unaware of the danger and greed that lurk outside her door. Between this and the deliberate staging of having her on the ledge above Rigoletto, it is clear that she represents something that is untainted and unburdened by the corruption of The Duke’s court.

The music I had initially found more jovial than I had anticipated for such a dark overlaying content, but as my initial surprise wore down I found that I worked beautifully and provided a highlighting contrast to the content presented on the stage. Conductor Judith Yan breathed life into the story with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Her ability to manipulate the tempo to tell the story without sacrificing the music was wonderful.

Of all the moments that got me in Rigoletto, it was the instant that you knew Gilda was going to walk into the tavern to save this man who just used her and left her that was so incredibly painful and moving to watch. 

I have to admit that I was initially concerned about not knowing Italian (which is what the opera is sung in), and was worried that trying to read the lyrics projected above the stage would distract me from the soulful interactions on stage. But I was pleasantly surprised that not only was it easy to balance looking between the lyrics and the stage, but that the emotion being sung was tangible even without understanding Italian. 

I cannot wait to jump on going to the next opera that I can and making a new tradition of this for myself. This was an amazing experience and I look forward to enjoying more. 

Edmonton Opera Rigoletto
Conductor; Judith Yan
Director: Robert Herriot
Set Designer: Camellia Koo
Starring: Sharleen Joynt, James Westman. and Matthew White
Oct 19, 22, & 25, 2019

Next Edmonton Opera productions:
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro Feb 1, 4, & 7
Bernstein: Candide March 14, 17, & 20